M.G. Boulter. With Wolves The Lamb Will Lie. Harbour Song Records

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Aside from his duties with The Lucky Strikes and his in demand session player status (with Simone Felice and Blue Rose Code among others) M.G. Boulter is the poet laureate of the Thames estuary detailing the (often) sorry dreams and aspirations of those who populate the faded grandeur of Essex’s Southend and Clacton and hymning the meeting of water and land. His 2013 album The Water Or The Wave was a captivating collection of bittersweet songs with a somewhat folkish feel to several of the songs and with lyrics that at times recalled the sardonic strokes of Richard Thompson’s pen. For With Wolves The Lamb Will Lie Boulter has forsaken his estuary for a trip up north to Sheffield where he recorded the album with producer Andy Bell and a fuller backing band including woodwind and strings giving the album a more layered and at times sumptuous sound than its predecessor. Indeed much of the beauty here is in simply letting the arrangements wash over you while Bell has captured the bass and drum sound perfectly offering a solid base for the lilting and lifting guitars that float through the songs.

Boulter’s pedal steel colours the opening songs, both brisk, almost country rock numbers, their breeziness belying the dark lyrics contained within. Opener Sean or Patrick tells of a down and out character seeking refuge in booze and prone to grandiose notions comparing himself to Hemingway while the protagonist of In Sight of The Cellar is resigned to his delivery job, vicariously sharing life from outside bay windows with silent TV flickering but refusing to succumb to despair. This sunny side up musical mask is henceforth abandoned however as the music becomes more introspective and the arrangements more elaborate.

His Name Is Jean features a wonderful string arrangement over a fine woody double bass as Boulter sings of a parent reminiscing with pride regarding the son called Jean. Lyrically reminiscent of Loudon Wainwright there’s an ambiguity here with Jean/Gene’s gender not fully disclosed, nor is the manner of his “moving on” but there’s no doubting the tenderness and fragile beauty of the song. Lalita is a dreamlike trip into Boulter’s own memories, of a girl who followed his band and the murder of an acquaintance although the memories are vague and there’s a sense of regret that we don’t make more effort to know people. The string arrangement here is suffused with sadness, the vibraphone tying the song somewhat to sixties singer songwriters such as Tim Hardin.

There’s another burst of energy on the frantic The Last Song which races along with a fine soaring chorus and some nifty guitar work but the pop baroque keyboard of The Defeatist’s Hymn and rolling percussion amid the mysterious rhythms of Some Day The Waves are the highlights of the latter half of the album. Indeed Some Day The Waves throbs with mystery and slowly reaches its climax in a manner that suggests a weird combination of ESP act Pearls Before Swine and Fairport Convention circa A Sailor’s Life while the lyrics are poetic and again quite mysterious, WB Yeats sunk in ghosts and woods and trees. Nature and visions inform many of the songs. Starlings is a startling piece that is like Red Riding Hood reimagined as a self cutting girl at the mercy of men who prowl while Carmel Oakes is a girl sick of life who offers hope to a hopeless commuter who may be the man at the station referred to in Some Day The Waves.

Despite the grim subject matter Boulter offers glimpses of light. The promise that one day life will get better in Carmel Oakes and the cry to raise your sights and see the sun on Brother Uncles is reinforced on the closing Let Light In where he references the biblical quote the album is named for. It may be reading too much into the album but that’s the sense we get from the words, like Dylan they are open to discussion. However you approach it With Wolves The Lamb Will Lie is a beautiful listen and one that will repay repeated immersion in its wayward and woody intricacies.

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Blue Rose Code/M. G. Boulter/Wrenne. The Glad Cafe, Glasgow. Wednesday 1st October.

Blabber’n’Smoke has to admit that it’s a bit of a latecomer to the music of Blue Rose Code, the vehicle for Edinburgh born Ross Wilson’s song poetry. A chance hearing of Boscombe Armistice on Celtic Music FM a few weeks ago stopped us in our tracks as this winsome pedal steel laced gem wafted from the speakers and Wilson’s Scots burr crooned about his granny saying he’d start a fight in an empty hoose. I suppose we’re much more used to hearing Scottish accents in songs these days with The Proclaimers leading the way while you wouldn’t contemplate King Creosote or Aidan Moffat adopting a transatlantic drawl. But there was more here, the song conjured up memories of Van Morrison’s Veedon Fleece and even Astral Weeks with its haunting quality and impressionistic feel. In these instant internet days the album The Ballads of Peckham Rye was almost immediately summoned up and pretty much floored me. A magnificent trawl from Leith to London with side trips to the corner of the northern isles to the peak of the antipodes the album is a psychogeographic trip as Wilson summons up a mystic Celtic hinterland finely balanced by a couthy Scottishness that would be familiar to readers of The Broons. As for the music it inhabits that folk/jazz hybrid that Morrison invented on Astral Weeks along with nods to Jackie Leven and John Martyn, helped indeed by having the legendary Danny Thompson on double bass duties.
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The Ballads Of Peckham Rye came out on CD a few months ago but this week was given a vinyl release and in tandem with this Wilson assembled a road troupe for a short tour. The show at The Glad Cafe was packed to the rafters and accordingly blisteringly hot, however the audience stalwarts were rewarded with a show that surely rates as one of the best of the year. A mini revue almost, both support acts were plucked from the Blue Rose Code line up with Wilson introducing them. First up was Wrenne, a singer he first encountered “playing a nylon strung guitar, barefoot, at a Secret Garden Party.” Singing songs from her forthcoming album along with a cover of Steven Merrit’s The Book Of Love her voice impressed, an opinion confirmed later as she sang some magnificent harmonies in the main set. Next up was M. G. Boulter, pedal steel gunslinger for the likes of Simone Felice when he’s in town. Boulter’s pedal steel graces The Ballads of Peckam Rye but he’s also a solo artist and a member of Southend’s The Lucky Strikes. His acoustic set saw him in a line of succession from Loudon Wainwright III and Alan Hull, bare boned songs that have a bleak yet hopeful outlook. Descriptive of Southend On Sea, chip shops, ice cream men (and their demise) featured but his best was the wonderful and evocative Once I Was from his fine album, The Water Or The Wave.

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The stage was well set then for Blue Rose Code, tonight a five piece with Wilson at the front, Boulter on pedal steel and Dobro and Wrenne on harmony vocals along with Nico Bruce on double bass and Lyle Watt playing acoustic guitar and mandolin. From the off it was obvious that this was going to be something special. Rippling guitars introduced Silent Drums before Bruce’s bass burbled into action sucking the audience into the slipstream. Wrenne’s vocals slipped and slid around Wilson, recalling that other vocal duo Birds Of Chicago, as the band gently billowed like a fine wind pushing the ship forward with Lyle Watt’s guitar embroidering the sound. Wilson took us on a journey that went back to his childhood with Ghosts Of Leith via Edina up to his London travails on Whitechapel (where he slipped in a Drumchapel to some applause). Come The Springtime was described as a hope for the future and comes across as a magnificent update to what one might imagine to be a traditional Scots song. Norman McCaig’s poem, True Ways Of Knowing was acknowledged by Wilson as an example of his late flowering into the highways and byways of Scottish literature and it’s an excellent example of written poetry set to music, a feat repeated later in the encore.

Introducing Matthew Boulter earlier Wilson declared that he had always wanted some pedal steel on his records but later said that he was reluctant to participate in the Americana Music Awards as he “wasn’t country.” The Right To Be Happy was his attempt to write a country song and tonight it swung with a fine country heft while several other songs certainly cantered into a country trot. The Hibernian folk swing persisted through the night and culminated in the first encore with Wilson and Wrenne delivering a powerful rendition of Hugh McDiarmid’s poem Scotland. Finally the band came out to perform the excellent This Is Not A Love Song which allowed them to stretch out and improvise, recalling Soho folk blues such as Pentangle in their heyday although Wilson brought it back to earth with his couthy declaration ” time after time it’s the same old shite,” a wonderful mishmash of folk purity and Scottish bare faced cheek. Overall the impression was of a magnificent warm and enveloping wit and humanity with Wilson and his players producing the finest night of the year so far.

The Lucky Strikes. The Exile and The Sea. (Harbour Song)

Essex band The Lucky Strikes are a persistent bunch stubbornly maintaining a liking for albums based around a theme (or as we used to call them, concept albums). Their two previous releases, The Chronicles of Solomon Quick and Gabriel, Forgive My 22 Sins (reviewed here) were set in America but for this, their fourth release, they delve into the backwaters and history of their homeland, the Thames Estuary, Southend and Canvey Island. Now for me these names have for years conjured up nothing more than Eddie and the Hot Rods, The Kursaal Flyers and Dr. Feelgood with images provided by Julian Temple’s Oil City Confidential which led me to believe that the area was for the most part a dilapidated industrial wasteland, indeed Essex was once called ‘the dustbin of London’ by Tory James Wentworth Day. However the recent release of The Lucky Strikes’ front man, Mathew Boulter’s solo disc, The Water and The Wave led me to look more closely at the area and the discovery of a fine blog, Caught By The River offered a different picture of an area steeped in natural history and a wild beauty. With The Thames spilling into the North Sea there’s a deep maritime history and it’s this along with the more recent rock’n’roll connections that The Lucky strikes attempt to capture on The Exile and The Sea.

Boulter’s album is a restrained affair that flowed like a stream, for the most part smooth and unruffled. The Exile and The Sea is a more rambunctious beast reflecting the turbulent events recounted within which include a vivid description of Southend pier on fire in 2005 on The Beast Burnt Down and the 19th Century tale of a man press ganged into the navy on Goldspring. Goldspring has a traditional feel to it especially in the vocals with the band joining in on a lusty chorus however it’s cloaked in a muscular organ draped beat which could have been delivered by the E Street Band. A rasping fiddle flits in sounding for all the world as if Dave Swarbrick was present and The Lucky Strikes sound as if they’ve picked up where classic Fairport Convention left off around 1973. This is perhaps the reason why The Exile and The Sea succeeds where Gabriel, Forgive My 22 Sins partially failed as the band are more comfortable with their Anglo centric heritage despite their love for and aptitude in delivering a more American sound. The Devil Knows Yourself develops this further moving more into folk rock mode with jangling mandolin and accordion joining in while the opening song, To Be King marries the folk and rock styles to become almost anthemic and will surely beg comparisons with Mike Scott’s Waterboys as will the dynamic New Avalon.
The title song and Vincent are more restrained with Boulter’s fragile voice buttressed by shimmering guitars and percussion somewhat like the sun reflected off of the sea surface with the latter picking up pace as it progresses with some fine guitar work from Boulter. Top of the class however is Ghost and the Actress which has a woozy waltz time rhythm and builds to a tremendous climax as it tells of the ghosts that inhabit the now closed Grand Hotel in Southend, a venue that hosted the infamous Essex bands mentioned previously.

The Exile and The Sea is a fine amalgamation of Anglo centric folk traditions with blustering American roots rock in the manner of Springsteen and The Band and with some luck the likes of New Avalon should be spreading across the airwaves in the very near future.

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The Lucky Strikes. Gabriel, Forgive My 22 Sins.

Concept albums are a tricky business with the number of successful ones able to be counted on the fingers of possibly one hand. Generally the vaguer the concept the better the chances of getting away with it. The Lucky Strikes from Southend have come up with this (their second attempt at a concept, their previous album being based on an account of the murder of blues legend Robert Johnson), a hard luck story concerning a boxer who could have been a contender or so he hoped. Instead he descends into the murky waters of back street boxing, shady bets and gangsters eventually dropping out of sight and into mythology.
A potentially fine tale which tugs at memories of black and white movies, On the Waterfront being the main contender here. Fittingly the band have a big cinematic sound that at times recalls Springsteen and The Waterboys, lurching between urban rock and driving Celtic folk. Unfortunately it all tends to get a bit cluttered and there is a feeling that the listener is almost being bludgeoned, song after song into a punch-drunk acceptance. The primary one two double whammy here are the songs The Fight and The Man With The Golden Arm. Real sluggers both I’m sure that live they would have an audience begging for mercy. The band throw everything they’ve got into the ring to create a mesmerising and pulverising sound. With influences ranging from Gospel, blues, country and cabaret and with Americana and European influences entwined (think of Tom Waits’ The Black Rider) this is an album that requires close listening.

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The Lucky Strikes- Man With The Golden Arm by paulk